By Rachel H Grant
The story features the painting Afterglow by Joseph Farquharson (4 May 1846 to 15 April 1935), a famous Scottish artist renowned for his winter landscapes, often at sunrise or sunset.
Carla strode purposefully through Aberdeen Art Gallery, like a dog sniffing out its owner she finally found it. Her favourite painting, Afterglow.
Her long blonde hair drew a curtain around her face as the tears welled in her eyes. Five years of unkempt unhappiness, and now this. Divorce. She stared hard at the painting, as if it could magically whisk her away, numbing her pain and massaging her heart with hope. But of course it would not. However, she tried to imagine herself there, in between the winter trees, feet crunching through untouched snow, trying not to scare the rabbits. And on the horizon, the pink glow of a sunset, heralding a new day to follow and new possibilities. Reluctantly, she smiled.
Carla closed her eyes. The dark engulfed her, snow cold and winter refreshing. Something cold landed on her nose, then the taste of snow melted on her tongue. Her eyes reluctantly opened on a beautiful winter landscape. She smiled. This was weird but it was thrilling too.
She walked through snow as white as unopened milk, as frost fondled her fingers. She laughed. Why, she was in the painting! Carla was beyond disbelief, only happy to have escaped her woes if only momentarily. The rose light beyond the trees lifted her spirits, hope in the sky feeding the hunger of her soul.
The rabbits ran in to the trees. She was all alone. It felt somehow good. Until she heard soft footsteps in the crisp snow behind. A tree branch snapped.
Clara looked behind. An old woman with long white hair and wise eyes smiled at her. Her clothes were bleached white with age and she used a large tree branch as a stick.
“Where … where am !?” she stuttered. But she already knew.
“You are in your own dream, a waking reality just for you. Come, child, have fun in the snow, it is time to reclaim your inner child and your lost dreams. Set her free!”
“Who … who are you?”
“I am the lesson of time, I am the piece of your heart that you forgot. But have fun girl! Play in the snow! This winter landscape, there is no one else, just us. Walk with me.”
The old lady took her arm gently. As they walked, the snow seemed to grow brighter but the day darker.
“Learn to laugh again, this is what you need to do. Learn to sing with joy, breathing in the magic snowdust of a new day.”
They walked slowly towards the rose sky ahead.
“Can you feel your inner child inside? So desperate to break free.”
Clara stuck out her tongue and caught a snowflake. She could feel hysterics erupting in her stomach, unreality and disbelief forming a web of weirdness in her head. But she did have an inner child, the repressed part of herself that still cried in her nightly dreams. Perhaps this was her chance to heal the scars.
“OK, I will let my inner child free!” she cried.
“Wise words, as you release your childlike fears maturity will wrap you in fully realised womanhood. But I must make haste, and leave you to your playtime. Farewell, dear friend!”
The old woman marched on in to the soft tones of the dying day. Carla was alone. But it felt good.
Snow melted in her heart as she rediscovered the joy of building a snowman, and numbed her hands as her heart grew hotter. She laughed, but there was no one to hear. The cold snow regarded her, as she placed two stone eyes on her creation, a stick for a nose and a leaf for a mouth. He looked as ridiculous as she felt.
She laughed again, but this time with less conviction. It was no longer fun being a child. That’s when she felt it. An odd emptiness in her heart. It felt lighter, it felt … older. Had she cast it out? Her inner child? Is that what healing her inner child meant? Losing that infant side of yourself, and happily marrying in to maturity?
No, not yet, she decided firmly. It was time to play once more. There were an army of snowmen to create.
The old lady watched her from the shadow of a tree, and smiled sadly.
Night fell, and Clara began to feel the cold. This was no longer fun. Then she saw it. A tree house above, with smoke coming from its tiny chimney. She smiled, in wonder. Who lived there? Perhaps the old lady? Nervously, she climbed the rickety ladder. The treehouse was small and warm, with blankets before a small wood fire. But it was empty. However, she was too tired to care. She would rest now, and tomorrow the dream would be over.
The Art Galley caretaker was surprised that a light had been left on overnight in one of the first floor galleries. He sighed. Someone was not doing their job properly. Slowly he mounted the stairs, arthritis massaging his legs.
The gallery was quiet, an early morning hush like a church in prayer. Then he saw her. A young girl, four or five, fast asleep at the foot of the Afterglow painting. Time to call social services. He sighed again. Who had left a child behind yesterday? This day could only get stranger.
He did not examine the painting. If he had, he would have seen a new set of double footprints in the snow. An adult foot following the path; and a child’s footprint returning to the edge of the frame.
Carla woke aching the next morning. She looked around in surprise. She was in the treehouse, the fire long extinguished. Was she still dreaming? Slowly she crept down the tree and looked around. A rose pink dawn shone through the trees. It was beautiful.
Hidden behind a tree, an old lady watched her younger self, and smiled. She had much still to learn, but fortunately there were decades left for her to do so. All alone, in the expertly painted forest. All alone, until now.
Far away in another world, a young child cried as a social worker took her hand. “What is your name?” “Carla,” she muttered incoherently. Then louder, “Carla.” If she said it enough times, it just might be true.
They quietly walked away. The Afterglow painting remained unwatched, still and serene as ever. The rabbits stood in the snow, as perfect as on the day they were painted. But they were alert. For they were no longer alone in the woods.
Fresh footprints appeared, then they were gone, erased by the morning snow. The woods were silent, as they had been for years and as they would be for many more, home to stray souls with nowhere to go. Two hearts beat on, trudging through the snow in a forest without end. But always ahead, the rose sky spoke of hope. Hope for a new day, hope for an escape that never came.